Image: CAS director Sarah Evanega (in “I <3 GMOs” shirt, front center) with government and agribusiness industry representatives
By AGRA Watch intern Na Haby Stella Faye
The mainstream media often portrays agroecological practices in a belittling way. At best, they are described as utopian; at worst, as damaging to the international economic system. This contributes to the dismissal of these practices as niche and prevents their serious consideration as models for the transformation of agriculture. Thus, it is important to unpack and understand these narratives. In this vein, I analyse how Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS) fellows portray agroecological alternatives and the people who support them.
Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS) is a non-profit organisation. It is mainly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BGMF). The mission of the organisation is to “promote access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally.” They do so through the Global Fellowship program, a 12-week training program that started in 2015. The program claims to train fellows in science communications–but this is really best understood as pro-biotechnology propaganda and support for an increasingly industrialised and corporate global agricultural system..
CAS fellows’ publications are extremely one-sided and biased in support of biotechnology. Only 3.5% of publications mentioned arguments critical of industrial agriculture or GMOs, compared to 53.2% where arguments in favour of crop biotechnology are proposed. In addition, some prominent fellows in the organisation dedicate a consistent part of their content to this theme.
A content analysis shows that even when fellows’ articles do mention agroecology or other alternative models, they do not provide an in-depth analysis. Instead, individuals and organisations opposing industrial agriculture and GMOs are only mentioned as a foil, with fellows discrediting their work. Fellows employ three main communicative strategies to discredit agroecology: 1) they dismiss it as pseudo-scientific; 2) they undermine the reputation of leaders and organisations; and 3) they blame anti-GMO organisations for Africa’s supposed agricultural stagnation.
1) CAS fellows’ articles and blog posts discredit agroecology as a pseudo-science. They equate biotechnology with science, often using the two terms interchangeably. For example, Nshimiyana (2020) states: “Many farmers, especially those in the region from Central Africa to the Horn of Africa where insect pests and droughts have been ravaging their fields, are pinning their hopes on science and technology.” Crop biotechnology and agricultural industrialisation are presented as the only “scientific” solutions to lift Africans out of poverty, fight climate change and ensure food security (Bisong, 2018; Dziwornu, 2018; Meeme, 2019; Wamboga-Mugirya, 2018a, 2018b, 2020). By contrast, people who oppose the use of GMOs are portrayed as not understanding science, or as victims of conspiracy theories. Thus, any critical attempt can be dismissed as ridiculous, anti-scientific, or even the result of cult brainwashing.
2) CAS fellows also undermine the reputation of anti-GMO movements and their members. In 2016 Vandana Shiva was called by Ghanian activists as a witness in a GMO court case. Reporting on this news, CAS fellow Joseph Opoku Gakpo used scare quotes when calling her an expert, to deride her competence. He further claimed she had no scientific background (which is untrue) and that she was a foreigner, unable to understand Ghana’s agriculture. This narrative is connected to the previous one, as it attacks the reputation of Vandana Shiva by deeming her expertise pseudo-scientific. It is also accompanied by the claim that “true” African scientists support crop biotechnology. Yet, fellows fail to mention that most funding for crop biotechnology research comes from Western institutions or Western-funded African institutions (Bailey et al., 2014, pp. 15-16).
Other writing by CAS fellows portrays anti-GMO activists as incendiary, pushing readers to keep their distance. CAS fellow Etta Michael Bisong described protests against the adoption of GMOs in Nigeria as follows (bolding added for emphasis): “[Anti-GMO activists], which include environmentalists and civil society organizations, brutally protested and expressed their grievances against the introduction of this technology into Nigeria’s environment.” This statement presents these movements as criminal and violent. However, the author provides no evidence for these claims, nor does he provide enough detail to verify them through other sources.
Similarly, CAS fellow Verenardo Meeme’s post, entitled “Legal challenge fails to stop Kenya’s food imports,” described environmental activists as disingenuous and unscrupulous. The context for his article was a 2020 food shortage in Kenya, which the government responded to by importing maize. Greenpeace Kenya filed a lawsuit based on a figure in the provision that indicated a very high acceptability threshold for a toxic compound. Fortunately, the figure turned out to be a typo and, when this was clarified, the case was dropped. However, Meeme depicts Greenpeace as an “evil” actor, wanting to stop imports of maize during a famine. Indeed, Meeme states that the suit was mostly motivated by an attempt to “curry favor” with smallholder farmers, since it was accompanied by appeals to purchase the maize locally.
3) CAS fellows blame agroecology and the opposition to GMOs for starvation and lack of innovation in Africa, with titles like “Your ideology, not GMOs, could be hurting the hungry” (for other examples, see Mudukuti, 2016; Wamboga-Mugirya, 2018c). The adoption of GMOs in African states is proposed as the ultimate solution for African hardships–especially food insecurity (I explore this narrative further in this article). In contrast, agroecology is described as a regressive approach, grounded in a “static, conservative, and elitist view of African agriculture and rejecting modern farming technologies and practices”. One fellow even accuses NGOs of opposing GMOs in order to protect their funding: “Agriculture and environmentally-based NGOs want calamities such as hunger and starvation to happen so that they use it to continuously fundraise” (Wamboga-Mugirya, 2018c). However, fellows rarely name opposing organisations and do not provide evidence for these statements.
CAS fellows do a disservice to the debate by not providing an in-depth analysis of the other side–namely, agroecology and other models alternative to industrial agriculture. Agroecology and food sovereignty are not univocal; they are umbrella terms for a pluriverse (to borrow from the post-development vocabulary) of revolutionary ideas, practices and movements. Yet CAS fellows consistently fail to examine the diverse movements and practices that make up agroecology, instead reducing them to a limited set of farming practices or equating them with opposition to GMOs. By contrast, a more complete and fair analysis would involve the comparison of the different epistemological approaches within agroecology. Finally, blaming anti-GMO activists for African hunger is egregiously simplistic. A deeper and more nuanced analysis of the historical (read: colonial), economic, and political origins of agricultural hardships in Africa is required.
Contrary to CAS fellows’ claims, agroecological approaches are not rooted in the past–they are progressive, innovative, and scientific, based on developing intercropping systems, water collection techniques, and pest management strategies that build on and learn from ecological processes. Moreover, agroecology deconstructs colonial understandings of ecology, agriculture, trade, political organising and knowledge. It imagines and implements new (rather than old) ways of living, cultivating and being in a community. Thus, in order to provide valuable critiques, CAS fellows should provide a deeper analysis of specific practices, approaches, or frameworks within agroecology. Their current approach only produces sterile polemics, which divert the attention of the public from a profound critique of the current African agricultural system.
To me, the fundamental difference between biotechnology and agroecology is their relationship with the socioeconomic and political status quo. Proponents of biotechnology tend to take the status quo as it is, and work to find the appropriate technologies within that system to address the challenges humans face. Thus, they choose not to question the role of billionaires and their foundations in setting the global development agenda. They embrace philanthrocapitalism as the only way to “save the world”, without asking themselves: how were/are ecosystems and their inhabitants exploited to build this humongous wealth? Who does philanthrocapitalism really benefit?
On the other hand, proponents of agroecology and other radical agricultural alternatives view the status quo as the cause for current challenges, and find ways to subvert it. This involves constantly questioning power and looking at the impacts and costs of capital accumulation. It also involves practicing resistance by creating and maintaining food systems that are sustainable for people and the Earth. This is not to say that agroecology is a panacea to solve all the world’s problems. It is not a unitary nor perfect framework, and its values and practices need constant questioning and democratic renegotiation in face of ecological, social and economic challenges. Importantly, it also needs more research and funding (Miles et al., 2017). It is not the only viable alternative to the current food system–many social movements proposing alternatives do not necessarily use this term (Fernandez et al., 2012). Additionally, the term agroecology has recently been co-opted to accommodate agribusiness interests (Giraldo & Rosset, 2018); this requires that we continue to emphasize its transformative dimensions and challenge its deployment as purely technical tools.
It would be misleading to think that these two approaches differ in the amount of technology that can be used in agriculture. The difference is not about whether or not technology should be used–it is about the power dynamics that are reinforced through technology and, thus, the purposes different technologies may serve. We can decide to innovate within the boundaries of the current system and try to correct its damage, with the risk of perpetuating it in slightly different ways, or we can decide to innovate in ways that radically change the system. There is no singular, static solution to socioeconomic and environmental justice, but I think trying to subvert an unjust system is worth a try.
Bailey, R., Willoughby, R., & Grzywacz, D. (2014). On trial: Agricultural biotechnology in Africa.
Bisong, E. M. (2018, May 14). GMOs: The contending forces. Cornell Alliance for Science. https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2018/05/gmos-contending-forces/
Dziwornu, J. A. (2018, January 4). Rejoinder: Peasant Farmers Caution Ghanaians Against Consuming GMO Foods During Christmas. Modern Ghana. https://www.modernghana.com/news/826273/rejoinder-peasant-farmers-caution-ghanaians-against-consumi.html
Fernandez, M., Goodall, K., Olson, M., & Mendez, E. (2012). Agroecology and Alternative Agrifood Movements in the United States: Towards a Sustainable Agrifood System. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, 121005074109009. https://doi.org/10.1080/10440046.2012.735633
Gakpo, J. O. (2019, July 30). Activists plan to call Vandana Shiva as ‘expert’ witness in Ghana GMO court case. Cornell Alliance for Science. https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2019/07/activists-plan-call-vandana-shiva-expert-witness-ghana-gmo-court-case/
Giraldo, O. F., & Rosset, P. M. (2018). Agroecology as a territory in dispute: Between institutionality and social movements. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45(3), 545–564. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2017.1353496
Meeme, V. (2019, June 22). Seralini a no-show at Kenya agroecology conference. Cornell Alliance for Science. https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2019/06/seralini-no-show-kenya-agroecology-conference/
Miles, A., DeLonge, M. S., & Carlisle, L. (2017). Triggering a positive research and policy feedback cycle to support a transition to agroecology and sustainable food systems. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 41(7), 855–879. https://doi.org/10.1080/21683565.2017.1331179
Mudukuti, N. (2016, October 3). We May Starve, but at Least We’ll Be GMO-Free. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/we-may-starve-but-at-least-well-be-gmo-free-1457653915
Mugwanya, N. (2017, December 21). Your ideology, not GMOs, could be hurting the hungry. https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2017/12/your-ideology-not-gmos-could-be-hurting-the-hungry/
Nshimiyimana, P. (2020, August 9). Africa And COVID-19: An Existential Implementation Science And New Economic Breakthrough Plan. Modern Ghana. https://www.modernghana.com/news/1021809/africa-and-covid-19-an-existential-implementation.html
Wamboga-Mugirya, P. (2018a, April 5). Ugandan scientist dismisses anti-GMO activism as bio-hegemony cult. Cornell Alliance for Science. https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2018/03/ugandan-scientist-anti-gmo-activism-cult/
Wamboga-Mugirya, P. (2018b, September 28). NGOs Are Causing Africa’s Agriculture To Stagnate. Modern Ghana. https://www.modernghana.com/news/886051/ngos-are-causing-africas-agriculture-to-stagnate.html
Wamboga-Mugirya, P. (2020, October 20). Viewpoint: Uganda battles anti-GMO, anti-vaccine coalition agitating against COVID-19 immunization. Genetic Literacy Project. https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2020/10/20/viewpoint-uganda-battles-anti-gmo-anti-vaccine-coalition-agitating-against-covid-19-immunization/
Author bio: I am a Senegalese-Italian nature lover! I have a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Organisations and I recently approached the world of sustainable food systems, hoping to contribute to the just transition to a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable future. I am currently doing a Masters in Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden. My research with CAGJ as an AGRA Watch Intern has focused on gathering publications by Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS) fellows, and analyzing the narratives promoted in their writings. Additionally, I’ve lately focused on a larger research project on the influence of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on setting the African agricultural agenda.